COVID-19: Auckland residents outraged as 'chaotic' checkpoints add gruelling 8-hour waits to journeys home

Auckland residents attempting to return home are outraged by "chaotic" and "disorganised" checkpoints at the geographical border, with some reporting gruelling eight-hour queues to re-enter the region. 

At 6am on Sunday, the region was placed under a preliminary seven-day lockdown after an active case of COVID-19, a university student from South Auckland, failed to isolate while they were infectious. 

As the outbreak is currently confined to the Super City, the rest of New Zealand is able to operate at alert level 2, with limited travel in and out of Auckland. To minimise the risk of COVID-19 being spread to the rest of the country, checkpoints are operating along the regional boundary to ensure Aucklanders are only travelling for essential reasons. 

Checkpoints have also been established on the other side of the border to make sure people are not entering Auckland unnecessarily, which could also facilitate the spread of the virus to other regions. 

However, it appears legitimate residents attempting to return home from weekend excursions are now getting caught in the chaos, with cars piling up to pass the checkpoints.

Several Aucklanders have contacted Newshub claiming the queues lasted six to eight hours, with cars crawling towards the checkpoint in intense heat without the necessary provisions

One resident who wrote to Newshub said they were simply waved through the checkpoint after an eight-hour wait without food or bathroom access. 

"Unbelievable and unacceptable delay getting through the southern checkpoint to enter Auckland," one wrote on Sunday. "We have spent over eight hours travelling at around 1 - 2 km/h without any ability to get food, water or use a bathroom.

"Now we have finally gotten to the checkpoint, a quick look at your license without checking any details and [they] wave you on - what did we spend eight hours in a line of traffic for?

"I am enraged beyond measure and I can't imagine how anyone with children has handled this."

Another told Newshub they were attempting to return home after attending a wedding in the Coromandel. They claimed they had travelled just 500 metres in an hour and estimated it would take around eight to reach the checkpoint.

"We are stuck in a queue going basically nowhere... if the current rate of progress continues I estimate it will take us eight hours to get to the checkpoint," the person said. "They say we can return home, so why can't we?"

One parent, whose child completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with her peers over the weekend, described the checkpoints as a "chaotic and disorganised stuff-up".

"Six hours they spent in the queue on what was an extremely hot day," they said. 

"Once they finally got to the border, they were asked where they were going. As soon as they said 'home' they were waved through, no more questions asked.

"The real lunacy is not allowing people to return to their place of residence and subjecting them to a six-hour traffic jam."

A checkpoint along Auckland's regional boundary.
A checkpoint along Auckland's regional boundary. Photo credit: Getty

Speaking to The AM Show on Monday morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged that implementing the lockdown mid-weekend had put additional stress on the entry checkpoints.

"The issue we're facing at the moment is that this is the first time we've had a lockdown that's happened mid-weekend. That means a lot more pressure on that entry border as Aucklanders are coming home," she said.

The purpose of the checkpoints is to prevent people living outside of Auckland from travelling back-and-forth unnecessarily, Ardern explained  - movements that could facilitate the spread of COVID-19 throughout the country.

"If we had a situation where someone who did not live in Auckland came into Auckland, undertook contact that they shouldn't, and then said, 'well, I don't live here, so I'm going home' - rightly, that would be wrong," she said.

"We don't want people coming into Auckland who are not residents there, or who are not transiting through to get to their place of residence. We want to stop all unnecessary contact and movement with those outside of Auckland. We've always done that."

Ardern said it would be "wrong" to allow people who are not Auckland residents to enter the region without legitimate reasons.
Ardern said it would be "wrong" to allow people who are not Auckland residents to enter the region without legitimate reasons. Photo credit: Newshub

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins also defended the purpose of the checkpoints. 

"Ultimately we have to make sure that we're minimising the flows in and out of Auckland if we're going to shut this down," he said during an interview with More FM on Monday.

"People going into Auckland without a good reason could then turn around and seek to go out of Auckland again - and we really want to minimise the possibility for that to happen."

Ardern reiterated that police had issued a warning last night urging people to defer their travel for a few hours to ease the congestion.

Extra personnel were also brought in from the New Zealand Defence Force to aid movement through the checkpoints, and additional lanes were opened for livestock.

"What we'll see, as I understand, is significant easing of that today," Ardern said.

In a statement on Monday afternoon, Inspector John Thornley, the road policing manager for Tāmaki Makaurau, thanked motorists for their "patience and cooperation" as police process "thousands of vehicles" through checkpoints.

Insp Thornley acknowledged there was "significant congestion" at the southern Mercer checkpoint on Sunday.

"Police recognise the delays were frustrating for motorists, however police need to ensure there is no non-essential movement in and out of the region under alert level 3," he said.

"Police have been working hard to ease the congestion and waiting times at the checkpoints across Tāmaki Makaurau have been significantly shorter today. Police still warn motorists to expect some delays at the checkpoints this week and, if possible, to avoid travelling during peak hours."

Initial numbers indicate more than 25,000 vehicles were processed through Auckland's 10 checkpoints on Sunday, with 263 vehicles turned away - 151 at the northern checkpoints, and 112 at the southern.

Motorists are reminded to be prepared to show officers proof of an exemption.

Following the announcement on Saturday night that Auckland would once again be plunged into lockdown, numerous Aucklanders managed to escape the region before level 3 was enacted - leading to concerns that an undetected case may export the virus to COVID-free areas.

Experts and health officials are now calling for these people to "take level 3 with them", with disease modeller Shaun Hendy urging Aucklanders to "assume" they have the virus and act accordingly.